The real bad guys: the confused world of mining

Drifting out of the world of HIV, I’ve been able to get away from the knee-jerk demonisation of Big Pharma (often by people who are only too happy to extend their lives by taking their Truvada as long as someone else pays for it). But I’ve re-discovered another Public Enemy Number 1: Big Mining. Just to be clear, I’m under no illusion that Rio Tinto is all sweetness and light and contributing to human welfare, any more than Pfizer is….


Ceremonial confusion: personality, politics and parties in Indonesia’s fiefdoms

It’s party season here in Weda, a newly-bustling town on the east coast of Halmahera island. There are parties and Parties, and the confusion of the two are a pretty good illustration of life in Indonesia’s districts, which are often run very much as personal fiefdoms of the Bupati, or regent. The Bupati is the elected head of the local government. He (it usually is a he) runs an executive that is supposedly held to account by the local parliament,…



Cheating justice: the case of the teenage sandal thief

When Indonesians ask me what I find so special about their country, I often throw the question back at them. There’s usually much head-scratching and no clear answer. So then I ask: OK, what do you think defines Indonesia, then? Again, rarely a clear answer. The other day, though, a random unemployed guy I met on a boat came out with this: “Indonesia is a country based on the rule of law”. I nearly fell into the Banda sea (the…


Spicing up capitalism: in praise of monopolies

I welcomed 2012 while in the Banda islands, moderately famous because just one of the nine tiny islands of this isolated group was once thought to be a fair exchange for Manhattan, something I wrote about while a Reuters correspondent in these parts two decades ago. The differing fortunes of the two islands — the one still rich in nutmeg, the other now just plain rich — inspired Michael Schuman to give us this homily of protest at protectionism. He…


Equal Opportunity Kitsch

For the last few weeks, I’ve been in Maluku, formerly known as the Moluccas, famous for spices and inter-religious carnage. The hideous religious riots of 1999-2002 have left a deep scar on this part of the country. Whole communities were uprooted and there was a shift between islands as people who formerly lived perfectly happily with neighbours of another faith consolidated into single-faith blocks. Needless to say, this makes me furious. I have never understood how people can grow to…



Indonesia gets investment status, but where’s the investment?

Indonesia starts the new year hopefully: it has been upgraded to investment status by one of the rating agencies. It’s no huge surprise; rating agencies tend to think quite short term, and short term, the indicators look good. The Financial Times is enthusiastic about what it calls a “demographic dividend” i.e. lots of young people. “Indonesia’s dependency ratio of workers to retirees is dropping from about 55 percent now to 45 per cent by 2025,” says the pink paper. What…


What to get the kids for Christmas? A mango stone helicopter

While Indonesia’s Christian churches do their best to get people excited about Christmas, the pine tree iconography has a hard time competing with the palm tree reality. Local Christmas trees are mostly made of hoops of ugly white tinsel, like the tattered hooped skirt of some antebellum Cinderella. I did, however, like this variant made of discarded water bottles which I found in Kisar, in Maluku. Quite by chance, whiling away the night on a dock on another island with…


Some travelling companions are just nicer than others

I’ve just spent five days (and five nights) on the deck of a cargo ship travelling between Wini, in West Timor, and the Tanimbar Islands in southern Maluku. As in any five day period, there are good moments and bad. The bad would certainly include the hours when the lads sitting close to me, having been drinking palm wine for several hours, broke out a guitar held together with duct tape and took on the booming karaoke machine, a competitive…